PASADENA, Calif. -- The Rose Bowl was mostly empty by the time Baker Mayfield trudged out of Oklahoma's locker room Monday night and headed straight into the arms of his family.
Mayfield was exhausted, having overcome flu-like symptoms to play in the No. 2 Sooners' gut-wrenching 54-48 double-overtime loss to No. 3 Georgia in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual.
He sank into each long embrace from his mother, Gina, his father, James, and his older brother, Matt, as a black Heisman bag and a brown leather duffel bag hung from his shoulders, the same ones that have carried Oklahoma's football program for the past three years.
Mayfield then slid onto the back of a golf cart with his family and exited the stadium gates toward Oklahoma's team bus.
It was over.
"It's set in," Mayfield said of the end of his collegiate career. "I never get to put this jersey on again, I never get to play with Coach [Lincoln] Riley again. ... I can't believe it's over. It's been a wild ride."
It certainly has, and college football is better for it.
Love him or loathe him, Mayfield belongs in the pantheon of great college football players. In his three years as Oklahoma's starter, Mayfield accounted for more than 13,000 yards of offense and 138 touchdowns. He played in the College Football Playoff twice, won the Heisman Trophy and went from two-time walk-on at Texas Tech and Oklahoma to owning a 33-6 record as the Sooners' starter.
"Baker, he's a special name in college football. He's always going to be a person who's remembered in college football forever, and I don't think anyone can take his place," Oklahoma senior defensive back Steven Parker said.
"You can't simulate Baker. He's his own brand. Baker has really put an imprint on college football."
Now it's time for the NFL to smarten up to the fact that Mayfield is the kind of player you want to make the face of your franchise.
Naturally, Mayfield's polarizing personality will be a topic of discussion among NFL decision-makers, including his arrest in February 2017 and a few on-field exploits that caused negative headlines this season. They'll do extra homework on exactly who Mayfield truly is, but when they look at how he dazzled so well and won so much, they'll uncover the no-brainer answer to all of their questions: Mayfield is unequivocally a top prospect in the 2018 NFL draft.
"I'd be shocked if he's not a first-round pick," Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin said. "I'm not saying he's this guy, but to me, the way he plays and the swagger that he plays with, he's kind of a like a new age Brett Favre. Maybe everybody doesn't really like how he plays -- I love the way he plays."
Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. each have Mayfield ranked as the No. 4 QB prospect in this draft class. McShay has him ranked as the 27th overall prospect, so he's unlikely to be overlooked, for example, as Mississippi State's Dak Prescott was in the 2016 draft, when he was taken by the Dallas Cowboys with the 135th pick.
But the debate will rage about whether Mayfield's worth it. He'll be called a system quarterback whose skill set might not translate well to the NFL.
Teams will pass on him for other more qualified "sure things." And some team will overthink itself into drafting Wyoming's Josh Allen over Mayfield, who finished his college career 13-4 against ranked opponents and threw 46 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in those games.
It will be said that Mayfield is too short, with teams ignoring the Pro Football Hall of Fame career of the 6-foot Drew Brees and the work of the Super Bowl-winning, 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson to pick a safer, taller bet. And like the continuously slighted Mayfield did to the competition for the past three years, he'll make those teams pay.
"I don't know what's wrong with his measurables," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of Mayfield. "He's thick, he's physical, he's durable, he's not going to get hurt very often. He's plenty tall enough -- look at Russell Wilson. So I don't know what would be wrong with his measurables. As far as I know, these NFL teams are drooling for the guy.
"The guy believes he can make every throw. He's seen every defense known to man. He's made every check known to man. He knows how to check and adjust."
Comparisons to Favre came up with a few coaches when discussing Mayfield's uncanny ability to create when there's little or nothing to work with. They see the similar moxie and gunslinger mentality in two quarterbacks who thrived under pressure and when asked to improvise, who aren't restricted to the confines of the offense given to them. When they have to think outside of the scheme's box, they excel, and getting on the move allows their offenses to open up off script.
"The hardest thing in [the NFL] is to block great pass-rushers," Smart said. "[Baker] gives you the flexibility if you can't block them, he can run, he can create time. So it's more like Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre, where he's not trying to outrun them and break tackles; he's just trying to buy you four extra seconds to throw the ball. He's tremendous at doing that."
You saw more than a few exciting shake-and-Baker moments against Georgia, as he broke out of the pocket to deliver some huge throws for the Sooners. None was bigger than when he slid to the left of a collapsing pocket to deliver an 11-yard touchdown strike to Dimitri Flowers to tie the game at 38 in the fourth quarter.
"He's a guy that can work within the structure of the offense, but it doesn't have to be perfect," said Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who spent seven seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator. "If something breaks down from a protection standpoint or a coverage standpoint, he can still give those guys chances to win that down with his special abilities, and that puts a lot of pressure on a defense.
"There's no doubt in my mind he'll do a great job in the NFL. Just game planning against different types of quarterbacks over the years, he presents a lot of challenges because of all the different things that he can do."
Mayfield has evolved tremendously as a passer. He still dances in the pocket at times, but he has learned to stay in it as long as he can. On Oklahoma's opening drive of the second quarter in the Rose Bowl, Mayfield looked off at least three defenders before finding tight end Mark Andrews for a 29-yard gain. In the same half, he sensed pressure a couple of times and wisely dumped his throws off for big screen plays.
These plays have become commonplace for Mayfield, who has found a way to balance recklessness with poise since his more erratic first year with the Sooners.
"He's a pocket passer," Oklahoma defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. "He's the best passer in the game. He only moves around when he needs to, and that's a plus to his game."
The talent is undeniable, but one thing most people point out about Mayfield's game is his confidence. That's a turnoff to some, including Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy, who was caught on camera yelling "Humble yourself" at Mayfield after Monday's game.
Every little smirk, gesture or snide comment from Mayfield has enraged opposing fans, but it's that same confidence that has endeared him to his teammates. There's an everlasting chip on Mayfield's shoulders that has willed him to always want to prove someone wrong, and it's a quality some feel is paramount for a quarterback to have lasting success.
"His competitive toughness is off the charts," Tucker said. "You see teams with great quarterbacks over the years -- whether they're college or pro players -- they all have those same set of traits."
Mayfield declined to discuss his NFL future after Oklahoma's loss, but he believes that his free-flowing skill set translates to the professional level. To him, though, it's more than that -- it's his intangibles and his will.
He expects to be doubted (again), and when some of the fog from Monday night's heartbreaking loss clears, he'll be thrilled to embrace it (again).
It's an endless cycle for Mayfield, who is once again on the clock to prove himself.
"I've always been a guy who's very confident in my own abilities," he said. "[Monday] didn't show it, but I am a winner and I do know how to lead. Those are the most important things moving forward."